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Emotion is often the greatest cause for either enhanced recall or impaired recall. Through many studies psychologists have found that it is not only facts we store in our memory but the emotion surrounding them. Flashbulb memories involve an enduring imprint of events surrounding an important incident, the memory is not the event itself but where you were and what you were doing when you heard about it. Sheingold and Tenney (1982) provided evidence to support the concept of flashbulb memories. Participants were asked about personal memories and found most had good memories for when they were told and who told them. They found the flashbulb memories were strong and remained consistent over time; however there is no way of checking the accuracy of these memories.
As shown by Sheingold and Tenney, a flashbulb memory’s characteristic involves consistency and has an unchanging nature and they also involve a high level of emotional arousal which leads to better recall of the event. However Wright (1993) found evidence that goes against this definition, the study involved looking at people’s memories of the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989, 5 moths after the event. It was found that most of the participants didn’t report strong flashbulb memories; in fact many people had reconstructed their memories and had mixed their own with other people’s accounts. This evidence therefore goes against the idea that flashbulb memories remain consistent over time.
On the other hand Conway (1994) suggested that the reason some studies don’t support flashbulb memories is because the event wasn’t significant to the individuals. Conway et al used Mrs Thatcher’s resignation as the basis for the creation of flashbulb memories. 11 months after 86% of the UK participants has a strong and consistent flashbulb memory compared to only 29% participants from other countries. This research suggests that flashbulb memories will only be strong if the event surrounding it is significant to the individual; the UK participants would have been more aware and connected to Mrs Thatcher’s resignation than participants from other countries.
The role of emotion is memory can also cause impaired memory. Freud proposed the idea of repression; unwanted memories are pushed down into the unconscious mind so you forget them. Freud described this process as a way of the ego protecting itself from emotional conflict which is often the result of harsh experiences. Williams (1994) interviewed women who has been admitted to hospital on the grounds of sexual assault, 20years previously, (they were told the study was a follow up of medical care). Williams found that 38% of the women did not show any recall of being sexually abused and that 16% of the women that did, said that at one time they couldn’t remember they had. This study therefore provides strong evidence to support the repression theory, a traumatic event was repressed and some couldn’t recall it even 20 years later.
Repressed memories are defined as a traumatic event placed beyond conscious awareness. Because of this placement, these memories can also affect conscious thought. Forgetting a traumatic event, like Williams (1994) research, has also been studied through case studies. One of the most famous is Bavers (1981) study on sirhan sirhan, the man who shot Robert Kennedy, who has no recall of doing so.
In this case the emotions of regret and shame were probably the cause of the repression and the reason he cannot remember what he did. It has also been suggested that repressed memories can also cause anxiety and disordered behaviour. A study that supports this concept was carried out by Karon and Widener (1997) who found that once trauma was recalled in therapy, mental illness in World War 2 veterans completely alleviated, therefore supporting Freud’s theory.
However Loftus and Pickrell (1995) found evidence against Frued’s repression theory. The study was called ‘lost in the mall’ and the false memory of getting lost in a shopping centre as a child was implanted into the participants. After the debriefing 20% still held to their belief that this happened to them, even though it was a false memory showing trauma has a great affect on memory even though the memory was false but going against Frued as the memory wasn’t real.
Another study by Loftus and Palmer created a theory called the ‘Weapon effect’ this was during a highly emotional event such as a robbery or assault, an eye witnesses’ recall was altered due to their focus on a weapon being used.
Finally a depressive state also has an influence on memory. Negative emotions often create a negative recall bias which makes depressed people only focus on negative and unhappy experiences; a mood dependent memory. Lyketsos (2001) found in support of this that depression may lead people to be inattentive and so they don’t encode new memories into the long term memory well, therefore recall is much poorer. In further support of this Antikainen et al (2001) studied 174 depressed patients and found they performed better on memory tasks and had fewer memory problems after 6 months treatment.
In conclusion emotion plays an important role in memory. It can often lead to enhanced memory, such as flashbulb memories, or impaired memory such as the repression of traumatic experiences. Negative emotion is also responsible for a lack of memory such as when someone is depressed. Overall memories are largely influenced by emotion the more positive we are the more likely we are to recall, the more negative the less likely we will recall and are more likely to forget.